Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libya

There is so much to say about Libya. What should strike you is just how much our national narrative of the last five years has been revealed to be utter bullshit. We have told ourselves pleasing lies about how we are now restrained where we were once aggressive, disciplined where we were once headstrong, wise where we were once rash. We had been through the fires in Iraq, and by god, we had changed.

Well. There was that.

Now we are jumping into another misadventure in the Muslim world with literally less than a couple days of anything resembling public deliberation. We are doing it because we have decided once again that we have the wisdom to peer into endlessly complex foreign political affairs and immediately sort good from bad. We are doing it because we have decided once again that when we have sorted good from bad in foreign countries we have the right to enter those countries by force and set things the way we want them. We are doing it because we have decided once again that imposing our decisions from across the sea on a foreign populace can, absurdly, be called "supporting democracy." I don't know what you might call this country. But we're committing military force to choose sides in a civil war without one word of Congressional deliberation and nothing resembling a coherent public debate. No talk of restraint, discipline, or wisdom, when referring to this nation, please. Never again. We will fly off the handle and lob ordinance wherever and whenever we get the urge, and we will do so totally convinced of our perfect ability and our beautiful, benevolent righteousness.

I believe in the importance of internal resistance movements. I believe in them precisely as long as they remain internal, because I understand, as so many seem not to, that it is a blatant and ridiculous contradiction in terms to enforce democracy by foreign military aggression. You cannot enforce democracy from without. Self-determination is the non-negotiable precondition for democracy. After we have installed our Vichy democracies, they tend to operate as you would assume such governments would. You only have to ask the minority parties of Iraq, which have reported again and again that they are excluded, marginalized, and oppressed, up to and including the disappearance of protesters.

I believe in resistance, but that doesn't mean I believe in good outcomes coming from all resistance. And this is the fundamental error, among so many, of the supporters of Libyan revolution, or of the supposed "pan-Arab" uprising: they look to this incredibly complex phenomenon, made up of a shifting multitude of actors and interests, supported by foreign powers both near and far, which proceeds in fits and starts towards whatever goal the aggregate of its parts supports at the moment... and they pronounce it good. With their child's view of the world, with their infantile Manicheanism, they feel that the must sort all actors at all times into the piles of good and bad. With their American arrogance, they believe that they actually possess the wisdom and knowledge capable of performing such a feat. With their imperial hubris, they believe that this knowledge gives them the right to impose their judgments with force and by fiat, and they will do so even while they know that doing so will kill innocent people. That's the condition of the contemporary American.

For me, I have far less faith in my own ability to sort out the realities of foreign affairs. I have far less belief in my own righteousness. And I know that the fundamental principles of noninterference and self-determination exist in large part because human beings lack such perfect, divine knowledge and righteousness.

You must ask yourself whether you live in a country that is so in possession of the Truth that it should be adjudicating winners and losers in foreign civil wars. And you must ask yourself what it means that we have convinced ourselves yet again that we are, despite the pile of bodies that tells us otherwise. When people speak of American decline, they never tell the most important story: that we refuse to learn any lessons.

10 comments:

Mysterious Man from the shadows said...

My comment is going to look snarky on the page, and I assure you that I do not wish it to. I mean it sincerely, and not at all as a criticism.

But surely, whatever else may be said, the protestors in Libya are "eggs", and Gaddafi is the "wall". Or am I wrong about that?

I realize I seem like a jerk for saying this, but it was what first occurred to me when I read your post, and all I can say is that I really don't mean any malice by it.

Freddie said...

I didn't want the US lobbing cruise missiles at the UK, either. I support internal resistance movements with the only pitiful tools that have ever been available to me: silence, exile, cunning. You are entitled to tell the truth and say that such things mean very little.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me you’re objecting to the principles behind the decision-making process without addressing the merits of the decision itself. The truly worst-case scenario has always been a Gaddafi victory, followed by a very long night of secret police, torture, and mass reprisals, which is bad enough to make talk of "humanitarian intervention on behalf of civilians" something more than the usual nonsense. Which is why calling this a "civil war" and making it seem like both sides are equal allows you to score an easy rhetorical point only by side-stepping the truly difficult problem this uprising had already created: one side is fighting in the name of principles and democratic freedoms, while the other side was promising to kill anyone who got in his way. One side began by protesting in the streets, and the other side began by calling in air strikes against them. And the second side was winning, had almost won. Calling this a civil war makes it easier to grab onto moral purity, but does nothing for the people whose heads were on the chopping block.

Moreover, it’s because our collective hands are already so dirty in Libya that inaction would have been a kind of choice, as it always is. Having armed Gaddafi -- having helped him amass the weapons and military that made his victory inevitable -- means that watching him crush the rebels would have been complicity with it.

More than that, when you declare that we are “again imposing our decisions from across the sea on a foreign populace” you describing a different war than this one. This intervention might still be wrong, but if you want to argue against it, you have to address what it is. If the American invasion of Iraq is your only point of comparison, then sure, it seems like this is a foolhardy continuation of the norm. But talk to Bosnians about no fly zones and bombing campaigns to protect civilians. Because without some kind of intervention from outside Libya, the overwhelmingly likely outcome was that Gaddafi would make the streets of Benghazi run with blood exactly as he has promised.

What we are seeing now is, at least, an alternative to that, which is something you never address; while it might not prove to be a particularly great alternative -- it may even prove to be a terrible one -- there simply were not any good outcomes available. I feel like you're imagining the kind of "internal resistance movement" you would like to exist, while quietly overlooking the fact that Gaddafi has been killing all resistance against for decades, which is precisely why he's still in power. That’s something we can know with a great deal of certainty. Which is not to say that words like “democracy” aren’t worth remembering; a rebel victory is pretty much the only prospect of change in Libya that anyone's seen in a long time, or that we could reasonably foresee in the future. But the fact that nothing is certain is exactly the point: uncertainty means hope. The only thing that is *certain* is that unless Gaddafi goes, Libya is going to go through a "rivers of blood" scenario, a sufficiently dire outcome as to make other (normally terrible) options look good by comparison. But you don’t seem to see that, I think, because you’re comparing the bad option of UN intervention to good alternatives that I don’t see as existing.

Anonymous said...

This, for example, is an argument against the intervention that I take seriously, precisely because he understands the topography of the conflict:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/18/relief-fade-real-impact-libya-intervention

Freddie said...

1. I could not care less what arguments you take seriously, Very Serious Man. I could not. care. less.

2. I am opposed to the very notion that you or I or any of us has the right to impose our vision of what is the "least bad option" on a sovereign foreign entity. Why is that so hard to understand?

3. "one side is fighting in the name of principles and democratic freedoms, while the other side was promising to kill anyone who got in his way."

Thank you, teacher, for your righteous wisdom. Whatever hope I had for that kind of clarity died long ago.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm not sure why you have comment boxes if that's your response to (relatively) mild dissent.

Don't worry, I won't let it happen again.

Freddie said...

On this issue, I am ready to argue. Please, keep arguing, it's your dime. But come correct. I am in earnest.

2hands0feet said...

Thought-provoking. Thanks. Were there a vaccine for mission-creep, I might be more enthusiastic about disagreeing with you on one central point: While it is as you say a contradiction in terms to believe we can "impose democracy from without," it should (at least in theory) be possible to impose the security conditions req'd for a genuine democracy to emerge. We can't gift anyone a democracy, but we can - that is, we have the technical capacity to - shift the field in Libya to create the possibility for a democracy to emerge. (Yes, I'm asserting that possibility does not presently exist; I take it from your skepticism of our indiv. ability to know/understand world affairs that you would disagree-- fine.)

We do not, however, content ourselves with being the world's hall monitor-- and the world's policeman knows how to bend the rules, and purchase/install reliable snitches & strongmen on all the troublesome streetcorners of the world. That ain't democracy. It's not even a market. It's Bad Lieutenant.

Since I know of no example where USG "limited" military involvement didn't lead pretty directly to our installing illegitimate sockpuppet leaders... it's hard to fire up my afterburners for this argument. Theory's lovely, but experience & history don't back it up.

But.....

To your initial point-- that there's been insufficient public debate, and we must thus delete words like "restraint" from our national bio page-- do you not see this administration's deliberative process, both here and in Egypt last month, as a sign of incremental progress in the conduct of American FP? If our chief foreign policy actors reach into their tool bag and come out first with "stall the press and work the back channels," then with "skulduggery, but keep stalling the press," and must feel cornered by events before they pull out the hammers... isn't that a measurable improvement over the brash international dick-swinging favored by, oh, every GOP POTUS of the past half-century? Obviously I'm being very careful to avoid declaring this new mode of thinking to be sufficient. But if you truly see no change here, that doesn't square w/ my understanding of the past 3 months based on what I've read. And if you see incremental-but-insufficient change here, then you've buried or ignored that perception in your opening grafs above.

Anonymous said...

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ryan said...

You and I have interacted before, Freddie, and are on opposite sides of the debate more often than not.

But I can't possibly agree more with you here.